Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A brief review of Racher Kushner's The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers has restored my belief in first person narratives. She somehow seamlessly conveys this character in a way that is at once sympathetic, and very convincing. Particularly when it comes to the secondary characters, who come to life through dialogue. First person has always been problematic to me, maybe because of the insistence on the voice of one. Yet Kushner delivers on all of these characters (sure, some more than others) which requires the conviction of the narrator/protagonist to convey.

First of all, Kushner has a good premise, though it’s also just unbelievable enough to work. What I mean is that much of her plot seems to rely on highly unlikely confluence of events. But what remains behind is the story, and getting from A to B to C to Z. It’s as if she had these events, in most cases bigger than the usual personal narrative as a kind of stand in for plot, but the personal also intermixes with the larger events. (The motorcycle racing; the riots in Rome, etc.) So she establishes these premises, and brings the narrator to the fore. This structure of the political/historical frames the narrator’s life story in a way we can viscerally grasp. As if to say, “How would I react to this circumstance?” This novelistic approach seems obvious, yet as a writer, you have to look hard to establish what these events/frame could be. In retrospect, these are among my favorite novels, those that do not necessarily fictionalize history, but use an aspect of its drama to inform a novel “in situ,” shall we say.

This is why realism is so much more compelling than genre, which usually feels off to me. I need to believe the story’s fact base. The limitations, and possibilities, with what we have in this world, are enough. I’m more interested in psychology, in relationships. In genre, secondary characters are usually functionary to the main character. Now, it could be said of The Flamethrowers, that the secondary characters are functionary to the main character, but it doesn’t entirely feel this way. It’s more the difference between round and flat characters: you almost have to be willing to venture into those other characters’ lives, and tell their stories, for them to be believable. (This is, incidentally, the same problem that Downton Abbey is having, according to David Wiegand, and I don’t disagree. You cannot take characters that are round and proceed with “batting them about with amateur abandon” to provide entertainment). As soon as you are biased, or create a character merely to hold up some aspect of your main character—or plot line--I think the story goes dead on the page. It’s not necessarily the case with memoir or non-fiction because all you have is the event and the protagonist driving the narrative—there’s a clear line of plot that is to be arrived at. I’m thinking of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which was an unrelenting page turning wonder. In these non-fiction/memoir accounts, the secondary characters are often composites, or established to best illustrate the narrow, yet highly specific terrain of the story’s premise.

Of this main character, Reno, I’m not entirely sympathetic. I don’t know if she needs the reader’s sympathy, because she is such a strong character herself. As for Sandro, her love interest, he seems to live down to his expectations, and they only thing you might hope for from this relationship, is that she gains some empowerment. I’d have rather not had her equivocation about Sandro at the end, and would have preferred his fall so to speak, to be more dramatic. But I’m sure novelistically, this would have been too easy, perhaps, or even too conventional. And above all I liked this novel it’s willingness to be both feminist and obliquely sexist, ie., true to the characters. (This is an entire other subject that The Flamethrowers complicatedly presents, perhaps to explore in a longer post.) So Sandro is not a total louse after all, just a victim of Italian patriarchy.

Maybe the novel is a bit too invested in imagery—as per Kushner’s closing note/essay—but I feel she pulled it off so compellingly that I accepted it. Pulled it off in smart, hyper-literate prose; not so ultra hip as you might think by the seventies gloss and Technicolor, but hip enough, and hipper than most. I never flagged in my interest in this book, mainly held by this sophisticated prose. And it fits right in there with the novels that I love enough to remind me why I love them (Norman Rush’s Mortals, Bolano’s 2666, Anna Karenina, Cortazar’s Hopscotch.)

No comments:

Post a Comment